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so that's what elimination diets are for
well, this was unexpected
In January 2018, a few friends and I did a round of Whole30, which, at the time, was referred to by The Cut as “the diet taking over your Instagram.” The restrictive elimination diet implores you to try, for one month, to remove from your life all semblance of joy fand opt instead to say things like “I can’t, I’m on Whole30” or “is there gluten in that?” or “I can’t, I’m on Whole30.”
We filled our fridges with vegetables and flavored seltzer, our weekends with sober-friendly activities. We hunkered down for the long, treacherous journey toward Whole30’s promise to transform our “health, habits and emotional relationship with food.”
The rules go as follows: For 30 days, you eliminate typical food allergy culprits: gluten, dairy, legumes, added sugars and alcohol. Then, once the 30 days are up, you reintroduce them one at a time to see how they make you feel.
Elimination diets, first popularized in the 1940s, are widely considered a useful aid in understanding food sensitivities. But with Whole30, there were other, more problematic feeling rules, too. Participants were encouraged to take “before” and “after” photos (they stopped the practice in 2021, FWIW) and, the last time I checked, there was no visible marker to show that a person is no longer having stomachaches.
Smoothies were off limits. So too were “pancakes” – even if they were made with compliant ingredients like banana, almond butter and oat flour. They were (seriously) referred to as “sex with your pants on foods,” AKA foods that, according to the plan, won’t actually help you change your shameful eating habits or tendency to turn to food to destress, for comfort, or to disassociate.
While it seems they have since changed the term to “the pancake rule,” in my experience, Whole30 did nothing besides make me think, talk and post obsessively about food. For us, at least, there was no come to Jesus moment surrounding the mental health implications of your relationship with eating, no “transformation” of habits or feelings.
I much prefer to do that work in therapy whilst continuing to eat pancakes, thank-you-very-much.
I know there are plenty of people for who Whole30 has changed their life, helped identify problematic patterns and helped people understand more about what impact the foods we choose to eat have on our insides.
I know there are also plenty of other people (yours truly among them) who grew up demonizing carbohydrates on the Atkins diet and rummaging through refrigerators packed with with fat-free, sugar-free, low calorie foods, whose disordered eating habits and distorted body image led them to Whole30 with weight loss in mind.
I spent most of that month in 2018 willing it to end, complaining both in real life and on social media to anyone with ears and eyes about how goddamn boring it is to eat a salad without cheese, how deprived I felt of restaurants! Of rice! How many bags of sex with my pants on Trader Joe’s plantain chips I inhaled in an attempt to feel something. On the last day, I took a photo with my final sad salad, a sad-lad if you will, to mark the end of this truly hellacious endeavor.
I, along with countless articles, podcast episodes and other people have since come to understand Whole30 as just another extremely restrictive diet – a catalyst for my, and so many other people’s – already disordered eating patterns with a fancy name. After that month, I went back, quickly, to my pre-Whole30 lifestyle and never looked back.
Until this year. According to the National Library of Medicine and my actual doctor, up to 80% of Ashkenazi Jews, (it’s me, hi) are lactose intolerant. Dairy isn’t what I’d call a huge part of my diet, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a little goosebumpy at the thought of half and half dancing its way around a cup of coffee or that I can’t fuck up a cheese plate.
I’d recently noticed, though, that something was wreaking havoc on my insides in a new, more unsettling way. Without being too graphic, things in my bathroom were just… not right. Could this be just the work of a couple of greek yogurts and a sprinkling of feta in my salad? I needed to find out.
And so, I turned again, to an elimination diet. Not Whole30 this time, with its coital metaphors and freaky ass rules. I simply decided that for the next little while, I’d try cutting out dairy, gluten (sure!), caffeine and alcohol (please god, no). I’d been on a pretty consistent and totally healthy routine of wine in the evening and multiple cups of coffee in the morning since at least the start of the pandemic. This would be fine.
I didn’t make such a big deal this time around. I just… woke up on March 1st, went to the supermarket, made myself some food and got on with my day.
The caffeine withdrawal came first. Those first three days were like one long headache. But soon they subsided, and I gave decaf a try. To my delight and surprise, the act of drinking decaf felt, well, exactly like drinking regular coffee. But the eye-twitch and shaky hands that had previously, and often, sent me into a WebMD tailspin – they were gone. When I told my therapist about it, she put it pretty bluntly. “I’m not sure why anyone with anxiety would ever drink caffeine,” she said. Huh. I’d never thought of it that way.
Alcohol abstention would prove itself a trickier beast. I had just returned from a trip to Portugal where I’d spent five glorious days drinking as much delicious, affordable wine as possible. In an effort to keep the magic alive, I even had a case shipped home. The big box arrived at my doorstep the night before I planned to stop drinking. Cue small violin.
There’s a euphoric quality to the feeling you get during those first few days devoid of poisoning yourself with stimulants, downers and difficult to digest-ibles. I imagine whatever amnesia comes over women when they decide that yes, they would like to go through labor again to have another child is not dissimilar to the kind you feel when you go back to drinking after a dry spell. Not drinking just makes you feel…. So good.
I told myself repeatedly that I could stop at any time, that if the opportunity arose to have the world’s best chocolate cake or something, that I’d take it. I could always start over. This was about feeling better, not about punishment.
But another phrase kept coming up over and over, too. If you want something you’ve never had, you have to do something you’ve never done.
Of all the things I’ve never had, I’d say a more-often-than-not healthy relationship with my body was one of the more important ones. Things between us have gotten better over the years, for sure. I no longer avoid the mirror on my way to the shower like I did as a teenager and young adult, I can now pinpoint things I actually like about my body. I swim every morning because it feels good, and I cook healthy, nutritious meals for myself because I feel worthy of being cared for.
But I couldn’t really square this affection for myself with reality – that there were many ways I wasn’t taking care of myself at all. Leaving my Invisalign out all weekend because I was sick of keeping it in and felt like I “deserved a break” wasn’t taking care of myself. It was prolonging the whole (scam) of a process and made my teeth hurt. Throwing back drinks mindlessly on the weekends (and, let’s be real, during the week) wasn’t a “treat,” it was messing with my sleep, exacerbating my anxiety and yes, making me gain weight. Similarly, noticing the stomach aches that came after meals and… ignoring them under the guise of empowerment to eat whatever I want when I want to, couldn’t really be called taking care of myself, either.
During the first weekend of this experiment I went to a birthday party. The day of, I told myself – if I really felt like I wanted a drink, I could have one. When we arrived, my eyes immediately averted to the bar area, an instinct I realized kicks in when I arrive at parties in general. It was the first time, maybe ever, that I noticed the inclination.
Instead of listening to it, I poured myself a club soda with lime and just… gave it 20 minutes. Once the initial excitement of the arrival wore off, I found I actually didn’t need – or even want – a drink. I danced with and caught up with friends and left when it was time to go. I felt good. Cutting things out, I realized then, wasn’t just a challenge to see if I could pull it off like it was in 2018 – it was a way to figure out what my body really needs, and when.
I’d done Whole30 in 2018 because I wanted to lose weight, full stop. I had no intention of implementing the insights an elimination diet gleans into my consumption decision making. And it would be dishonest to say the thought of weight loss hasn’t crossed my mind this time around. But more importantly, I am, for the first time maybe ever, giving credence to the concept that I have a body that is worth caring for, and the way I’ve been going about it thus far just isn’t cutting it.
I find myself not wishing the days away, but rather invigorated to be present in them – to take note of my improved mood, my higher energy levels, my clearer skin. My better nights sleep and most importantly, the absence of the omnipresent stomachache. Much like what happened with swimming, I’d turned my eating habits from something I thought about and, in a way, dreaded, into something that just exists as part of my routine and part of my life.
Taking care of yourself takes many different shapes. Sometimes it does mean having a glass of wine (or two). Sometimes it means getting off your phone. Sometimes, of course, it means indulging. Taking care of yourself isn’t “treating yourself” to a big dinner out that you can’t afford where you spend the entire meal worrying that your card might get declined, or using that glass of wine to disassociate from painful feelings you’d otherwise have to actually feel. There’s just no care in that.
I don’t know what I’ll ultimately decide is the best thing for me long term. I know a life completely devoid of gluten and dairy is not one I feel like is worth living. But I do know I’ll at least be thinking about the decisions I make before I make them – and taking the lessons with me far beyond the 30 day mark. I’m worth doing that for.
Speaking of taking care of myself, as of today I am officially down to $10,000 of debt! Celebrate by listening to my first ever podcast appearance on Terrible, Thanks for Asking. Big thank you to Jordan Turgeon for thinking of me, making the conversation about money & mental health feel so comfortable and fun and for making me sound good!!! You can also listen to the ep on your favorite podcast player here and check out more from TTFA here.
OK, I love you, bye!
<3, Jamie AF